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5 Tips for Teaching the Tough Kids

Josh Work

Middle School Teacher, Maryland

Every teacher remembers his or her first "tough kid" experience. Maybe the student ignored your directions or laughed at your attempts to utilize the classroom discipline steps. We all have at least one story to share, and for some teachers, teaching a tough kid is a daily challenge. It seems that no matter what teaching techniques you try to pull out of your educator hat, nothing changes their behavior.

I've had the privilege of teaching some tough kids. I say "privilege" for a reason. Teaching these students pushed me to be a better educator and a more compassionate person. I've detailed below five methods that have reduced misbehavior in my classroom and, better still, helped transform these students into leaders among their peers.

1. Set the Tone

I firmly believe that a student's misbehavior in the past does not necessarily equate to future indiscretions. At the beginning of the school year, I would walk down to the sixth grade teachers with my new class lists and ask questions. I would inquire about who works well together, who probably should not sit next to each other, and who caused them the most grief. Not surprisingly, teachers would share the names of the same students that were their "tough kids." If I had the privilege of having any of these students in my class, I looked forward to it instead of dreading it.

Usually during the first week of school, I would try to have individual conferences with these tough kids. I'd take this as an opportunity to clear the air and wipe the slate clean. Often, these students can feel disrespected because their teachers already have preconceived ideas about how they are the troublemakers. Explain that you respect them and have high expectations for them this year. Lay the foundation for the student's understanding that you believe in him or her, because you might be the only one who genuinely does.

2. Be a Mentor

Unfortunately, it has been my experience that some of the toughest kids to teach come from very difficult home situations. Inconsistent housing, absentee parent(s), lack of resources, and violence are only a few examples of what some of these students have to face every day. Kids that are neglected at home can act out in school to receive attention, good or bad. They want someone to notice them and take an interest in their lives.

Don’t forget how important you are in helping your students develop not just academically, but also socially. Make an effort to show you care about them, not just their grades. Be proactive instead of reactive. The key to being a good mentor is to be positive, available, and trustworthy. One year with a great mentor can have a lasting, positive impact on a tough kid's life.

3. Make Connections

Part of being a great mentor is your ability to make connections with these tough kids. Since these students sometimes don't have anyone encouraging them or taking an interest in their lives, have a real conversation about their future or dreams. If they have nothing to share, start talking about their interests -- sports, music, movies, food, clothing, friends, siblings, etc. Find a way to connect so that they can relate to you. Start off small and show a genuine interest in what they have to say. Once you've made a positive connection and the student can trust you, you'd be surprised how fast they might open up to talking about their hopes, fears, home life, etc. This is when you need to exercise professional discretion and be prepared for what the student might bring up. Explain that you do not want to violate his or her trust but that, as an educator, you are required by law to report certain things.

4. Take it Personally (In a Good Way)

Teachers need to have thick skin. Students may say things in an attempt to bruise your ego or question your teaching abilities. Remember, we are working with young children and developing adults. I'm sure you said some hurtful things that you didn't mean when you were growing up. Students can say things out of frustration or boredom, or that are triggered by problems spilling over from outside of your classroom. Try to deal with their misbehavior in the classroom -- they might not take you seriously if you just send them to the office every time they act out. These are the moments when they need a positive mentor the most.

Once trust has been established, remind these students that you believe in them even if they make a mistake. I've vouched for kids during grade team meetings only to have them get into a fight at lunch the same day. They make mistakes, just like we all do. It's how we respond to their slip-ups that will determine if they'll continue to trust us. Explain that you're disappointed in their actions and that you know they can do better. Don't write them off. Tough kids are used to being dismissed as hopeless. Instead, show them that you care and are willing to work with them. Helping a tough kid overcome personal issues isn't something that happens overnight, but it is a worthwhile investment in his or her future.

5. Expect Anything and Everything!

All of our students come from a variety of cultures, nationalities, and home environments, and these five techniques that have worked for me might barely scratch the surface of how you interact with the tough kids in your classroom. If you have another method that has helped you reach out and connect to a tough kid, please share it below in the comments section.

Comments (23)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ashwin's picture
President, Phi Robotics


Simple thoughts and easily doable. Additional help can be sought from the treatise of "transaction analysis" by Eric Berne which mentions about various ego states and the significant role of 'positive strokes". The beauty lies in making the so called "troubled" students feel important and making them feel accountable for their actions/ in-actions. http://www.ericberne.com/transactional-analysis/

Christine S's picture

I LOVE that you view each "tough kid" as an opportunity for a positive experience. In my role as a substitute teacher, I relish the chance to connect with kids that I see on a semi-regular basis. It's discouraging to be told by staff "Don't waste your time. That's not our job." when it comes to reaching out to students. I've attended student's basketball games and been told by parents they've never seen a teacher there before. It's refreshing to hear from other educators who see these kids the same way I do!

tryingtokeepup's picture

I love your article, it is not only well written, but is also all true. I once heard a teacher who had sent a 3rd grader to the office for misbehaving say, " I don't care if she was evicted, she shouldn't act that way." Maybe if that teacher hugged that child and told them they could rest in the corner with a pillow, and showed her a drip of compassion; that child may not have had to act out like they did that day. I'm sure she didn't sleep at all that night and was obviously scared and tired. So, what I think teachers need to realize is that the students who need the most love and attention are the ones who are asking for it in the worst possible way! Virtually every "problem child" has issues at home. It is hard for adults to leave their baggage at home, and really hard for children. Most adults have husbands, wives, or someone who will listen to them complain and get it off their chest so they can get over their problem for the day. But unfortunately children don't always have that luxury. Maybe they were beat that night, got kicked out of their house, or didn't get dinner. Either way, they come to school with that on their brain and are looking for attention. I feel like if you show them that you care...even a little...and give these students some positive attention, they will turn their attitude around. Also, I think that it's usually the teachers attitude towards the child that determines how the child will behave in the class, but are most of us likely to admit that we may be the problem??

Barb Serianni's picture
Barb Serianni
Engaging Students with Technology

Powerful suggestions, right on target...most are documented by research evidence! Remember that each student may respond differently to your attempts to connect, don't give up on the ones that don't respond to your initial attempt to build a relationship. Use student interests (preferences) to connect when your initial approach fails. The behavioral strategy is called "pairing" when you associate yourself with something your student likes. For example, a child hooked on Star Wars may respond to you when you relate Star Wars characters to a something you are trying to teach, or you add a Darth Vader figurine to your desk. The secret to connecting with the toughest of the tough is figuring out what they love and using it to connect.

Melissa W's picture

These are great suggestions and reminders of how important it is to connect with students who daily challenge teachers' efforts. As an educator, these techniques are invaluable! Thanks!

Mr. Davis's picture

It's not surprise this topic has over 30,000 views. So many of us are teaching in tough situations. These are great points.

Alys - KC's picture


Thank you for your post! You brought up some very good points that we need to remember, specifically the comments about setting the tone in the classroom and that sending them out to the principal's office often makes it worse.

I like the way you meet with each student the very beginning of the school year to make connections and build relationships with them. Also, you made another good point about teachers having thick skins because a lot of the time, the students' misbehavior has nothing to do with the teacher. I once heard a teacher say, "Oh no! You have Joell? He is BAD!" right in front of the student. The look on his face was shock/hurt/betrayed.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

These points are all right on - coming from my perspective as a teacher at a school comprised entirely of "tough kids." One thing I would caution is for teachers to be careful about the mentorship piece. Yes, kids absolutely need someone to talk to and to help them - but role clarity is equally important. Rather than delving too deep yourself, you can do some great stuff by connecting students to more appropriate resources, like counseling, legal help, social services, etc. Be consistent and caring in YOUR role, and help your student find others to create a network of support.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

Great perspective - it's often fruitless to with things would be different in a child's life during the "other 18 hours" that he/she isn't at school. But - as teachers we can also involve parents in the process and help teach them how to show positive support. The same way we can't expect students to come to our classes with fully formed social skills, we can't necessarily expect parents to magically know how to parent perfectly. The role of the school can also be to support parents in learning HOW to be involved in school and learning. It's a much more hopeful process than expecting something without scaffolding it.

Etta Bowden's picture

You shared some very meaningful tips. Several that stood out the most for me were, "teachers must have thick skin, establishing trust, and acknowledging that mistakes can happen." I teach in a small district and building those relationships really make a difference. As teachers, those relationships provide them with hope for a better tomorrow. Thanks for sharing.

Christine S's picture

I LOVE that you view each "tough kid" as an opportunity for a positive experience. In my role as a substitute teacher, I relish the chance to connect with kids that I see on a semi-regular basis. It's discouraging to be told by staff "Don't waste your time. That's not our job." when it comes to reaching out to students. I've attended student's basketball games and been told by parents they've never seen a teacher there before. It's refreshing to hear from other educators who see these kids the same way I do!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

Hi Candice! How is he doing with all of the end-of-year rituals? Some kids back slide when it's time to say goodbye, others seem to be driven to finish strong. If he's doing okay (and not showing an increase in the tough behaviors), you might ask him to do a bit of reflection on the year. Him write (or video blog) a set of instructions for a kid coming in later next year. What advice would he give that student? What does he want to make sure he remembers for next year, himself? What advice would he give you?

I'd also encourage you to take good care of yourself. When I used to lead hiking trips (roughly 10,000 years ago), I was always surprised at the number of injuries we had in the last 24 hours. Apparently hikers get distracted by the end of the trip and start slacking on their routines and good habits, leading to more falls, dehydration, etc. The same happens in school I think- kids and teachers get focused on summer and start to pay less attention to the rituals and systems that kept everyone safe all year. (Case in point: I'm home today with a sick kid who I think stopped worrying too much about the hand sanitizer once the weather warmed up.) Be extra attentive to those systems all the way through the year- you'll be glad you did!

Good luck!

Mike Treanor's picture
Mike Treanor
High School Science Teacher

This is so well written! So many times I have found the students who act out the most are missing something in their lives. If I can give them something close to what they are missing, they understand that I care about them and their future.

The home lives of most students aren't like a perfect sitcom family. They all have difficulties. Some of them have horrible situations that nobody should have to live through.

For some kids, teachers MAY be the only people in their lives for 10 years or more who show these kids that they are important and valued.

There is always the argument, as Tammy said, that some of these things are the 'parents' jobs' and not the responsibility of teachers. I look at it another way: If I have volunteered to be with these children every day, perhaps spending more time with them than any other adult for a year of their lives, I have also signed up for the responsibility of being a mentor to them. It is an important responsibility.

This has freed me from some frustration and enriched my life in the process. I do not have to sit around and whine about how someone else isn't doing the job of raising the kids. Those are facts that I cannot change. What I can do is take on my responsibility and do my best.

And I notice a difference every single day.

Tammy - 760066's picture

I believe in these words with all of my heart. It really doesn't matter the content you cover in the year if you are sacrificing relationships with your students to "cover the curriculum". Sometimes it is really hard to find a connection with a student, especially if over time, they have "seen" that others perhaps don't cultivate a relationship with them or have preconceptions of who they are based on their reputation. Relationship can conquer anything - I firmly believe that.


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